Category Archives: net_neutrality

the ambiguity of net neutrality

The Times comes out once again in support of network neutrality, with hopes that the soon to be Democrat-controlled Congress will make decisive progress on that front in the coming year.
Meanwhile in a recent Wired column, Larry Lessig, also strongly in favor of net neutrality but at the same time hesitant about the robust government regulation it entails, does a bit of soul-searching about the landmark antitrust suit brought against Microsoft almost ten years ago. Then too he came down on the side of the regulators, but reflecting on it now he says might have counseled differently had he known about the potential of open source (i.e. Linux) to rival the corporate goliath. He worries that a decade from now he may arrive at similar regrets when alternative network strategies like community or municipal broadband may by then have emerged as credible competition to the telecoms and telcos. Still, seeing at present no “Linus Torvalds of broadband,” he decides to stick with regulation.
Network neutrality shouldn’t be trumpeted uncritically, and it’s healthy and right for leading advocates like Lessig to air their concerns. But I think he goes too far in saying he was flat-out wrong about Microsoft in the late 90s. Even with the remarkable success of Linux, Microsoft’s hegemony across personal and office desktops seems more or less unshaken a decade after the DOJ intervened.
Allow me to add another wrinkle. What probably poses a far greater threat to Microsoft than Linux is the prospect of a web-based operating system of the kind that Google is becoming, a development that can only be hastened by the preservation of net neutrality since it lets Google continue to claim an outsized portion of last-mile bandwidth at a bargain rate, allowing them to grow and prosper all the more rapidly. What seems like an obvious good to most reasonable people might end up opening the door wider for the next Microsoft. This is not an argument against net neutrality, simply a consideration of the complexity of getting what we wish and fight for. Even if we win, there will be other fights ahead. United States vs. Google?

the music world steps into the net neutrality debate

I’m still getting my head wrapped about this tune by the BroadBand. Written and performed by Kay Hanley (former lead singer of Letters to Cleo), Jill Sobule (“I Kissed a Girl” with one-time MTV staple video starring Fabio), and Michelle Lewis, “God Save the Internet” is another step in making the issues surrounding net neutrality more public. Perhaps my favorite lyric is “Jesus wouldn’t mess with our Internet.” Cheeky lyrics aside, the download page does include links to resources for the inspired activist, including a provocative editorial from on why the African American community should be concerned about net neutrality. The telecommunication lobby is financing an well-funded campaign to implement the pro-telecom polices it supports. It is still unclear how effective the net neutrality movement will be, but it is slowly expanding beyond legal scholars into the general cultural sphere. The increasing involvement from the pop culture world, be it alt-rock or hip hop, will extend the movement’s reach to more people and encourage more discourse. All this will hopefully result in a balanced and fair approach to telecommunications policy and legislation.

congress passes telecom bill, breaks internet

The benighted and corrupt U.S. House of Representatives, well greased by millions of lobbying dollars, has passed (321-101) the new telecommunications bill, the biggest and most far-reaching since 1996, “largely ratifying the policy agenda of the nation’s largest telephone companies” (NYT). A net neutrality amendment put forth by a small band of democrats was readily defeated, bringing Verizon, Bell South, AT&T and the rest of them one step closer to remaking America’s internet in their own stupid image.


if:book took to the streets yesterday at the National Day of Out(r)age protest outside Verizon world headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Here’s Reverend Billy, a local performance artist/activist who styles himself as a televangelist (he’s sort of annoying, but entertaining in small doses). His cry: “accesselujah!”
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The crowd was quite small, fenced in along a single block outside the towering Verizon building. A few handfuls of grassroots media folks and other miscellanies gathered to protest the odious COPE HR5252 legislation, which threatens net neutrality and PEG (Public, Educational and Governmental) Access channels on TV. The mission is to rally one person for every telecom/cableco lobbying dollar. Judging by yesterday’s turnout, things aren’t looking so hot.
I kinda liked this sign though:
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save the internet! protest today at verizon world hq

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Today in Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
For New Yorkers today (some of us will be there):
National Day of Out(R)age – New York City Protest
Location: Verizon World Headquarters
140 West Street at Vesey Street
Date/Time: Wednesday, May 24th 12:30-1:30 (arrive 12:15)
ACE-23 trains to Chambers St.
Organized by the Coalition with Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), NYC Grassroots Media Coalition, Paper Tiger TV and more!.

net neutrality update

1. National Day of Out(r)age 5/24/2006
Access to communication systems is vital for a functioning democracy. While there has been much activity on the issue in the blogosphere and in academic writing, the net neutrality movement has lacked a general public presence. aims to put an end to that, by organizing the National Day of Out(r)age, Wednesday, May 24. With demonstrations in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, they are pushing for network neutrality, enforcing privacy of the public’s communication, telco lobby reform, and limits to the telco industry consolidation. If you care about these as we do, make your voice known.
2. What exactly are we arguing for?
On a related topic, Susan Crawford (cyberlaw expert and one of our favorite thinkers on net neutrality) gives a good definition of net neutrality on a recent blog post. Always able to keep the big picture in focus, she notes the problem with defining net neutrality as “treating all VoIP alike, all video alike, and all blogs alike,” is that someone (i.e. broadband providers) still need to look at packets. She prefers a definition where bandwidth is “treated like a utility, unbundled and open to competition, and speeds are much higher and costs are much lower.”
3. Changes to the wireless landscape are coming:
Yesterday, Crawford also linked to an article in Business Week, on the upcoming government auction of more of the wireless spectrum. New comers to wireless such as, Intel, Microsoft, TimeWarner, and News Corp have been rumored to be among the interested parties of the sale of the largest block of the wireless spectrum in history. As well, smaller entities, such as Clearwire (headed by Craig McCaw, who started McCaw Celluar and eventually sold it to AT&T) and Leap Wireless are reported to be involved. A possible result could be a re-direction of the trend of consolidation, by introducing new players with potential new services. The auction is set to start on June 29, 2006, however the effects will only be known much later.

machinima agitprop elucidates net neutrality

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This Spartan Life, our favorite talk show in Halo space, just posted a hilarious video blog entry making the case for network neutrality. In some ways, this is the perfect medium for illustrating a threat to virtual spaces, conveying more in a couple of minutes than several weeks worth of op-eds. Enjoy it now before the party’s over.
(In case you missed it, here’s TSL’s interview with Bob.)

funding serious games

revolution.jpgIn his recent article “Why We Need a Corporation for Public Gaming,” David Rejeski proposes the creation of a government funded entity for gaming to be modeled after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). He compares the early days of television to the early days of video gaming. 20 years after the birth of commercial broadcast television, he notes that the Lyndon Johnson administration created CPB to combat to the “vast wasteland of television.” CPB started with an initial $15 million budget (which has since grown to $300 million). Rejeski propose a similar initial budget for a Corporation for Public Gaming (CPG). For Rejeski, video games are no longer sequestered to the bedroom of teenage boys, and are as an important medium in our culture as is television. He notes “that the average gamer is 30 years old, that over 40 percent are female, and that most adult gamers have been playing games for 12 years.” He also cites examples of how a small but growing movement of “serious games” are being used towards education and humanitarian ends. By claiming that a diversity of video games is important for the public good, and therefore important for the government to fund, he implies that these serious games are good for democracy.
Rejeski raises an important idea (which I agree with), that gaming has more potential activities than saving princesses or shooting everything in sight. Fortunately, he acknowledges that government funded game development will not cure all the ill effects he describes. In that, CPB funded television programs did not fix television programming and has its own biases. Rejeski admits that ultimately “serious games, like serious TV, are likely to remain a sidebar in the history of mass media.” My main contention with Rejeski’s call is his focus on the final product or content, in this case, comparing a video game with a television program. His analogy fails to recognize the equally important components of the medium, production and distribution. If we look at video games in terms of production, distribution as well as content, the allocation of government resources envision a different outcome. In this analysis, a more efficient use of funds would be geared towards creating tools to create games, insuring fair and open access to the network, and less emphasis funded towards the creation of actual games.
1. Production:
Perhaps, rather than television, a better analogy would be to look at the creation of the Internet, which supports many to many communication and production. What started as a military project under DARPA, Internet protocols and networks became a tool which people used for academic, commercial, and individual purposes. A similar argument could be made for the creation of a freely distributed game development environment. Although the costs associated with computation and communication are decreasing, high-end game development budgets for titles such as the Sims Online and Halo 2 are estimated to run in the tens of millions of dollars. The level of support are required to create sophisticated 3D and AI game engines.
Educators have been modding games of this caliber. For example, the Education Arcade’s game, Revolution, teaches American History. The game was created using the Neverwinter Nights game engine. However, problems often arise because the actions of characters are often geared towards the violent, and male and female models are not representative of real people. Therefore, rather than focusing on the funding of games, creating a game engine and other game production tools to be made open source and freely distributed would provide an important resource for the non-commerical gaming community.
There are funders who support the creation of non-commerical games, however as with most non-commerical ventures, resources are scare. Thus, a game development environment, released under a GPL-type licensing agreement, would allow serious game developers to use their resources for design and game play, and potentially address issues that may be too controversial for the government to fund. Issues of government funding over controversial content, be it television or games, will be addressed further in this analysis.
In Rejecki’s analogy of television, he focuses on the content of the one to many broadcast model. One result of this focus is the lack of discussion on the equally important use of CPB funds to support the Public Broadcast Services (PBS) that air CPB funded programs. By supporting PBS, an additional voice was added to the three television networks which in theory is good for a functioning democracy. The one to many model also discounts the power of the many to many model that is enabled by a fairly accessible network.
In the analogy of television and games, air waves and cables are tightly controlled through spectrum allocation and private ownership of cable wires. Individual production of television programming is limited to public access cable. The costs of producing and distributing on-air television content is extremely expensive, and does not decreasingly scale. That is, a two minute on-air television clip is still expensive to produce and air. Where as, small scale games can be created and distributed with limited resources. In the many to many production model, supporting issues as network neutrality or municipal broadband (along with new tools) would allow serious games to increase in sophistication, especially as games increasingly rely on the network for not only distribution, but game play as well. Corporation for Public Gaming does not need to pay for municipal broadband networks. However, legislative backers of a CPG need to recognize that an open network are equally linked to non-commerical content, as the CPB and PBS are. Again, keeping the network open will allow more resources to go toward content.
3. Content:
The problem with government funded content, whether it be television programs or video games, is that the content will always been under the influence of the mainstream cultural shifts. It may be hard to challenge the purpose of creating games to teach people about children diabetics glucose level management or balancing state budgets. However, games to teach people about HIV/AIDS education, evolution or religion are harder for the government to fund. Or better yet, take Rejeski’s example of the United Nation World Food Program game on resource allocation for disaster relief. What happens with this simulation gets expanded to include issues like religious conflicts, population control, and international favoritism?
Further, looking at the CPB example, it is important to acknowledge the commercial interests in CPB funded programs. Programs broadcast on PBS receive funding from CPB, private foundations, and corporate sponsorship, often from all three for one program. It becomes increasingly hard to defend children’s television as “non-commerical,” when one considers the proliferation of products based on CPB funded children’s educational shows, such as Sesame Street’s “Tickle me Emo” dolls. Therefore, we need to be careful, when we discuss the CPB and PBS programs as “non-commercial.”
Therefore, commercial interests are involved in the production of “public television,” and will be effected by commerical interests, even if it is to a lesser degree than commercial network programming. Investment in fair distribution and access to the network , as well as the development of accessible tools for gaming production would allow more opportunity for the democratization of game development that Rejeski is suggesting.
Currently, many of the serious games being created are niche games, with a very specific, at times, small audience. Digital technologies excel in this many to many model. As opposed to the one to many communication model of television, the many to many production of DYI game design allows for many more voices. Some segment of federal grants to support these games will fall prey to criticism, if the content strays too far from the current mainstream. The vital question than, is how do we support the diversity of voices to maintain a democracy in the gaming world given the scare resource of federal funding. Allocating resources towards tools and access may then be more effective overall in supporting the creation of serious games. Although I agree with Rejeski’s intentions, I suggest the idea of government funded video games needs to expand to include production and distribution, along with limited support of content for serious games.

net-based video creates bandwidth crunch

Apparently the recent explosion of internet video services like YouTube and Google Video has led to a serious bandwidth bottleneck on the network, potentially giving ammunition to broadband providers in their campaign for tiered internet service.
If Congress chooses to ignore the cable and phone lobbies and includes a network neutrality provision in the new Telecommunications bill, that will then place the burden on the providers to embrace peer-to-peer technologies that could solve the traffic problem. Bit torrent, for instance, distributes large downloads across multiple users in a local network, minimizing the strain on the parent server and greatly speeding up the transfer of big media files. But if govenment capitulates, then the ISPs will have every incentive to preserve their archaic one-to-many distribution model, slicing up the bandwidth and selling it to the highest bidder — like the broadcast companies of old.
The video bandwidth crunch and the potential p2p solution nicely illustrates how the internet is a self-correcting organic entity. But the broadband providers want to seize on this moment of inneficiency — the inevitable rise of pressure in the pipes that comes from innovation — and exploit it. They ought to remember that the reason people are willing to pay for broadband service in the first place is because they want access to all the great, innovative stuff developing on the net. Give them more control and they’ll stifle that innovation, even as they say they’re providing better service.

an argument for net neutrality

Ten years after the initial signing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress is considering amending it. The original intention of the legislation was to increase competition by deregulating the telecommunication industry. The effects were gigantic, with a main result being that Regional Baby Operating Companies (RBOCs or Baby Bells) formed after the break up of the Ma Bell in 1984, merged into a handful of companies. Verzion nee Bell Atlantic, GTE, and NYNEX. SBC nee Southwestern Bell, PacTel, and Ameritech. Only now, these handful of companies operate with limited regulation.
On Tuesday, Congress heard arguments on the future of pricing broadband access. The question at hand is net neutrality, which is the idea that data transfer should have a single price, regardless of the provider, type or content of media being downloaded or uploaded. Variable pricing would have an effect on Internet companies as that use broadband networks for distributing their services as well as individuals. Cable companies and telecos such as Verizon, Comcast, Bell South, and AT&T are now planing to roll out tiered pricing. Under these new schemes, fees would be higher access to high-speed networks or certain services as downloading movies. Another intention is to charge different rates for downloading email, video, or games.
The key difference between opponents and proponents of net neutrality is their definition of innovation, and who benefits from that innovation. The broadband providers argue that other companies benefit from using their data pipes. They claim that by not being able to profit more from their networks, their incentive to innovate, that is, upgrade their systems, will decrease. While on the other side, firms as Vonage and Google argue the opposite, that uniform access spurs innovation, in terms of novel uses for the network. These kinds of innovations (video on demand) provide useful new services for the public, and in turn increase demand for the broadband providers.
byron.jpgFirst, it is crucial to point that all users are paying for access now. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota noted:

”It is not a free lunch for any one of these content providers. Those lines and that access is being paid for by the consumer.”

Broadband providers argue that tiered pricing (whether for services or bandwidth) will increase innovation. This argument is deeply flawed. Tier-pricing will not guarntee new and useful services for users, but it will guarantee short term financial gains for the providers. These companies did not invent the Internet nor did they invent the markets for these services. Innovative users (both customers and start-ups) discovered creative ways to use the network. The market for broadband (and the subsequent network) exists because people outgrew the bandwidth capacity of dial-up, as more companies and people posted multimedia on the web. Innovation of this sort creates new demands for bandwidth and increases the customer base and revenue for the broadband providers. New innovative uses generally demand more bandwidth, as seen in p2p, video google, flickr, video ipods, and massively multiplayer online role playing games.
Use of the internet and the WWW did not explode for the mainstream consumer until ISPs as AOL moved to a flat fee pricing structure for their dial-up access. Before this period, most of the innovation of use came from the university, not only researchers, but students who had unlimited access. For these students, they ostensibly paid a flat fee what was embedded in their tuition. The low barrier of access in the early 1990s was essential in the creation of a culture of use that established the current market for Internet services that these broadband providers currently hope to restructure in price.
eric.jpgProf. Eric Von Hippel of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, author of the book, Democratizing Innovation, has done extensive research on innovation. He has found that users innovation a great deal, and much of it is underreported by the industries that capitalize on these improvements to their technology. An user innovator tends to have one great innovation. Therefore, a fundamental requirement for user innovation is offering access to the largest possible audience. In this context, everyone can benefit from net neutrality.
Tiered-pricing proponents argue that charging customers with limited download needs the same rates is unfair. This idea does not consider that the under-utilizers benefit overall from the innovations created by the over-utilizers. In a way, the under-utitlizers subsidize research for services they may use in the future. For example, the p2p community has created proven models and markets of sharing (professional or amateur) movies before the broadband providers (who also strive to become content providers.)
Maintaining democratic access will only fuel innovation, which will create new uses and users. New users translates into growing revenue for the broadband services. These new demands will also create an economic incentive to upgrade and maintain broadband providers’ networks. The key questions that Congress needs to ask itself, is who had been doing the most innovation in the last twenty years and what supported that innovation?